BA: Hello, this is Brian Auten of Apologetics 315. Today’s interview is with Professor of New Testament, Dr. Michael J. Kruger. Dr. Kruger teaches at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. His area of expertise is in the development of the New Testament canon, the Gospels, and the development of early Christianity. His latest book is Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins, and Authority of the New Testament Books.
The purpose of today’s interview is to learn more about the formation of the New Testament canon, the writing of the Gospels, and gain some insights from Dr. Kruger about understanding and defending the Gospel canon.
Well thanks for joining me for this interview, Dr. Kruger.
MK: Thanks, Brian. Good to be with you.
BA: Well, first off Dr. Kruger, would you mind just sharing a bit about yourself and your background?
MK: Yeah, for those that may not know, I am a professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. My specialty is not only New Testament but particularly the origins of the New Testament including the New Testament text and canon. I spend most of my research in those particular areas but also do a lot with other areas of New Testament studies and Biblical studies more broadly.
BA: Well very good. Well I am particularly excited about the interview because before I got into apologetics my first question was, you know, I’m willing to trust the Bible if it’s authoritative, but… why? Why should I? So the issue of canon was really big for me at the time and I still think it’s critical. But backing up a bit, about your own interest in New Testament, what got you into New Testament studies and studying the canon in particular?
MK: Yeah, well in a very similar way as you just described your own background, I’ve always have had an interested of course in scripture as the center point of Christian life. That’s where we look to for God’s word and for that reason I always wanted to understand it better—and particularly understand its origins because part of its authority is depending on where it comes from.
And so I was interested both in Old Testament and New Testament. But I was drawn to New Testament studies particularly during my undergraduate years at UNC Chapel Hill. There I was introduced to a lot of critical scholarship. One of my professors there was Bart Ehrman, whom many people know as a famous New Testament critical scholar. And I was introduced to the problems with the New Testament Gospels, the development of the canon and the text of the New Testament as well as issues related to the historical Jesus. And of course, as a young Christian, I didn’t have many answers to those questions but I was fascinated by them. I wanted to learn more and sort of commited myself to finding out as much as I could about them.
As I dove into those questions I began to realize I had a real fascination and a real interest in that area and really wanted to go further. And that’s what was the beginning of a long academic journey. It was those times that really got me interested in the New Testament half of things and even more than that, in the sort of Jesus quest and canon questions ended up being center stage.
So I really have to thank critical scholars for how God maybe has led me into Biblical studies because it was those challenges and those questions that sort of brought me where I am today.
BA: Well, I love these questions of authorship and authenticity and ultimately authority, and you deal with a lot of that in your latest book Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins, and Authority of the New Testament Books. So you have studied in this area and this is your area of expertise, but what approach did you take in this book and why write a book along these lines these days?
MK: Yeah, so, obviously I’m not the first to write a book on the New Testament canon, and so the question you have is a good one. What makes this one unique? Why bother at all?
Well, there’s two major reasons. One is sort of the gap in time between a major evangelical work on the canon and this particular book. If you look back at sort of the major works on canon, one probably thinks about F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, or maybe even Metzger’s The New Testament Canon, both written in the late 80s, and sort of the standard books in the field.
It’s been a while as you can imagine then, that a serious and full-length evangelical work has been written. There’s been a few things here and there, but I think there’s a gap there that needs to filled. That was the first reason.
The second reason for writing the book is the distinctive angle I take on the question. Most prior books on canon are what I call sort of “data” books. Their goal is simply to inform the reader about the historical facts: when one book was accepted as opposed to another, what objections did early Christians have, what were the canonical lists, and so on. And so what those books end up looking like is sort of a dump truck of patristic data that they sort of unload on the reader.
Some people want that kind of data and want books like that and certainly data plays a role, but I had a very different angle. What I wanted to solve was not the question of what the details were. That’s fairly established and there’s not much disagreement on the facts. What I wanted to answer was more of a philosphical question or what we may call an epistemological question. And that is the how do we know question. How does one go about knowing, or having any reason of thinking that they can know, which books belong in the New Testament.
So my question was more how does a Christian, or does the Christian have a foundation for thinking they can know which 27 books are the right ones, or whether these 27 books are the right ones. Now once you frame it like that, it’s a very different kind of book. And truthfully a book that I think needed to get written because I think Christians have that very question.
BA: Yeah. Well I want to dive into some of those questions and maybe start with the shallow waters and eventually get a little bit deeper. But, starting very shallow, when Christians today open their Bible, they’ve got this one nicely bound book, complete with books, chapters, verses, and of course table of contents, cross-references, maps, commentary… So I think sometimes those who are unfamiliar with the Bible or some Christians who haven’t really thought about it deeply, they think that the Bible is just that: a single book. So, could you break it down a bit and talk about “what is the Bible?” as far as being a historical document and collection?
MK: Yeah. See this is the trick of course that the Bible, in the way you just described it, is not like other books. When you think about a standard book, it was written by a single author and even usually in a single location in a singular chunk of time, whereas the Bible, as you well noted, is actually multiple authors and multiple locations and multiple books, over long periods of time.
Now that’s what makes it a complicated phenomenon. When we talk about the Bible we’re actually talking about a bunch of little books. And so what we have to ask is, how do we know these little books belong together? And that’s really the core issue with the Bible. But at the center of that is understanding what the Bible is, and the best way to describe it and I cover this in part of my book. But the best way to describe it is to think of these Biblical books, all of them, as deposits of God’s covenental revelation. And when we say covenental revelation is that when God engages with his people a covenant arrangement where he promised to bless them, love them, and save them—what we call and the Bible calls a covenant—whenever God makes covenants He ends up giving sort of a written documentation of the covenant arrangement and the covenant blessings and the covenant history. This is God’s word to His people and so one way to think of the Bible I think is helpful is to realize that what the Bible is, is the periodic deposits of God’s covenant revelation of Himself. How he relates to his people, what he’s done for his people, and how his people need to follow and obey him.
And so what that means is that the Bible and the books in it are ultimately theocentric, meaning that they are God-centered. They are from his hand, even though they come through people. And so the Bible in that sense is certainly a human book, but it’s also a divine book. It’s a book that ultimately is God revealing himself to his people.
BA: Well, this other issue is the word “canon” where some people maybe lost… thinking, “what are you talking about ‘the canon?’ Thinking of a gun of something. So what is this word “canon,” can you define it, sort of unpack what it means and what it describes?
MK: Yeah. So “canon” is a word we use; it’s not formally in the Bible the way we use it, even though the root word in Greek appears in the New Testament in a few places. But it’s not used in the same fashion we use it. Canon is kind of like a word like “trinity.” It’s not in the Bible but it describes a biblical phenomenon and the way we would define canon is you could define canon simply as “the authoritative books that God gave his corporate church.” That’s the way I like to say it.
And so the canon is basically a group or collection of writings that God has given to his people. And so to talk about canon is to talk about the collection of books, or one might even say the list of books. And the word canon has a history and an etimology behind it; it originall meant rule or standard. And we even use that today to talk about certain canons or certain rules related to certain disciplines or certain things. Even churches talk about the canons of the church, which just really means the rules or the standards of the church. But when we refer to the Bible the canon of course just simply means the collection of books that God gave his church. And so in one sense canon and scripture are almost synonymous. Not exactly, but they’re pretty close in terms of the way we normally use the terms.
BA: For those people who’ve read popular novels like the Da Vinci Code, and things like that, they might think that this authoritarian church came along, they decided what books to put in the Bible for their own politcal/power reasons. But this whole idea of canon formation; I mean, this is the big question—and I’m not expecting the entire answer here—but in a nutshell… I think you’d say that that’s not how the books of the Bible came about. So, give us in a nutshell really the more truthful approach there. What went into deciding or determining, or recognizing what went into the Bible that we have today?
MK: That’s a great question. Yeah, a lot of people have been sort of shaped by Da Vinci Code -esque sort of recontructions of Christianity. And it’s not just the book The Da Vinci Code that speaks that way but even the popular media and even folks on the internet tend to speak of the origins of the Bible in those same lines. And the idea is all the same, which is that the early Chrisitians really didn’t have a canon in any meaningful way; no one really agreed on much of anything. There was a bunch of disagreement, and only later under political pressure did the church, usually under the leadership of Constantine, decide, “oh, we really need to sort of settle this canon question.” And so they decided to come up with certain books that they liked and then they oppressed and suppressed the books they didn’t like and then forced their views on everyone else. And so according to that reconstruction, the canon as we know it is simply the result of a political power play.
That whole reconstruction, that whole idea that the canon is simply the books that belong to the theological victors, is actually a very old theological idea put out by a scholar famously by the name of Walter Bauer, who published a book in the 1930s in Germany called Heresy and Orthodoxy in Earliest Christianity. He’s the one originally who started the ball rolling down that whole reconstruction. And that’s a very common idea today. Of course, the problem with Bauer’s thesis and the problem with that reconstruction that you find in the Da Vinci Code is that I think it’s largely mistaken in terms of the way the canon developed.
So the original question then was “who chose the books in the canon?”—well, my answer may seem a little strange to people but I would argue that when it comes to the core books of the canon, I don’t think anybody chose them. And here’s what I mean by that. Take for example just Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. People often ask me, “who chose the Gospels?” Well, in one sense, no one chose the Gospels. We don’t have any indication in the early church that there was any vote on the Gospels or any council on the Gospels or any major decision on the Gospels.
The fact is that as far back as we can see within early Christianity, it seems like Christians were committed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These were the earliest Gospels, these were the only first-century we’re aware of. These are the Gospels that the church didn’t choose; rather, they are the Gospels the church inherited. So I think that’s a better way to think of it.
It’s not that the church say down and decided “hey, we need to pick some Gospels.” Rather, the church said, “what are the Gospels that have been handed down to us?” The answer had always been Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Now certainly there were dissenters, and certainly there were fringe groups, and we can talk about those. But as a core, no one chose these Gospels. They were simply the ones handed down.
And so I think what that gets at then is the Bible and its reception isn’t really driven by sort of church councils and human decisions in the main. Certainly played a role and certainly people played a role, but really driving the process is the fact that these are the books there were there from the beginning. And everyone sort of knew that and that’s how the books ended up getting handed down and received in the church.
BA: Well, that’s helpful that they are “inhereted” and they didn’t sit around and decide about that. Now I think that maybe one question that comes up with folks is simply the different between maybe Old Testament canon formation and New Testament—maybe a different process or way that came about. Is there a difference and could you describe it?
MK: Certainly there are differences historically. No doubt the time frame for the Old Testament canonical process was much longer. And the New Testament time frame for the canonical process was much shorter. And largely it has to do with the time frame in which the books themselves were written. The entire New Testament was written within the first century, whereas the entire Old Testament was written over many many centuries. And so that really complicates things in terms of the Old Testament. It’s not near as tidy or as neat.
Moreover, the Old Testament canon formation is much more difficult to ascertain because we have a lot less historical information about it. You know, the further back in time you go the less historical data you have about how these books developed, how these books were received, and the collections of books that people recognized. Whereas in the New Testament era we have a lot more information.
Now there are good books out there on the Old Testament canon, and I would think the best one out there is still probably Roger Beckwith’s book on the origins of the Old Testament canon, which I would recommend. My work of course has been largely on the New Testament half. Now that said, in terms of the difference I think still at the core is the same principle though. The principle being simply this: when God gives books to his people, that he works it out so that they recognize those books and eventually receive them.
That doesn’t mean that there’s never roadblocks or challenges along the way. But the fact is that God’s books are constituted by the Holy Spirit and God’s people have the Holy Spirit. And those two factors join together so that God’s people rightly recognize God’s books.
BA: Well very good. Now, talk about maybe some of the criteria for canonicity. What were some of the factors that maybe you could quantify that determined whether or not a book was accepted or inherited as opposed to maybe just falling to the side or being rejected in some way?
MK: Yeah, the term “criteria of canonicity” is a very popular phrase in the studies of the canon and it’s used a lot. I take a good bit of time in my book to actually critique that idea. The idea of the criteria of canonicity I think is problematic in some ways. One of the major ways it is problematic is that it almost creates this idea that that the church sort of consciously developed criteria and they went around looking for books that met them. That’s a little bit misleading based on what I said earlier. In some sense, a lot of the books the church never really consciously picked out of the field of many others because they simply were just the books inherited.
So in one sense the criteria of canonicity sort of overplays the role of the church and this is one of the major concerns I have about it. And so what I talk about in my book is I use a different concept besides criteria of canonicity. I talk about what’s called attributes of canonicity. Attributes of canonicity are things that set apart canonical books from other books. Now some of these overlap with the criteria for canonicity but the way it’s framed and the way you talk about it does matter, and of course I can’t fully develop that here. Someone would have to read the book to get the whole gist of it, but let me talk about what the attributes of canonicity are just so that people can get a sense of them.
What I outline in my book are three attributes of canonicity. One is what I call divine qualities of scripture. And these are the internal marks that a book is divine. And this tends to be in many people’s minds very subjective in the way they think about it, but I argue in the book that it’s actually a lot more objective than you might think. And we can come back to these. But we would argue and historically Christians have argued that the books themselves bear evidence that they are from God. The books themselves bear marks of having God’s fingerprints all over them. And that can include their beauty or their excellency or their unity or their harmony and so on. That’s a starting point for an attribute of canonicity.
A second attribute of canonicity that I bring out in the book which I think most people would probably be familiar with is apostolicity; the idea that all books that belong in the canon are from apostles or from the apostolic circle. And this is a very big component within early Christianity that has been noticed for a long time and historians are very aware that when it comes to what the early church did they are very keen to make sure that whatever books they had went back to the apostles. And this really does factor as a major thing because there’s not that many books we have even dated to the first century in the early church. And so if you’re talking about books that go back to the apostles you have a very short list, most of which are books that made it into the New Testament.
So those are two of the ones that I would focus on here. And I think that’s a way we can get started down the road of what constitutes a canonial book.
BA: That’s a really helpful distinction and I see the importance of it now that you describe it. So when we’re talking about criteria for canonicity, it’s more like what we’re seeing or observing after the fact that these things have already been determined. Saying attributes is like the perfect way of describing it. So when it comes to New Testament Gospels, as we had kind of just mentioned a few minutes ago there, some skeptics want to suggest that there were just these tons of other gospels to choose from. Can you talk a little bit about these other gospels and why they were rejected and kind of where they fall in this whole spectrum?
MK: Yeah, so apocryphal gospels is a term we use to talk about gospels not in the New Testament canon. And these are the media darlings of a lot of scholars. They love to talk about apocryphal gospels and talk about how this somehow brings into question the truth of the canonical four.
I find apocryphal gospels fascinating. My dissertation and PhD work was on an apocryphal gospel, and I think they’re an interesting part of the history of early Christianity. But in terms of whether they really compete with the canonical four, that’s a very different question. So let’s talk about a few of those issues. First, how many were there? I read an article just a couple of days ago in the UK Daily Mail, or Daily Telegraph—sorry—that was a story about apocryphal gospels and they made the claim that’s shocking to hear… that there were thousands of gospels in early Christianity. Now you hear a claim like that and you have to wonder did they get that from the Da Vinci Code? Well the Da Vinci Code wasn’t even that ambitious. The Da Vinci Code said there was 80 gospels that were in play in early Christianity, which is also ridiculous. And thousands of course is beyond ridiculous—and 80 is even beyond ridiculous.
How many were there? Well we don’t exactly how many there were but if you take a look at sort of the gospels that sort of circulated in the first four centuries of early Christianity you’re probably talking about a couple dozen here, tops. A lot of them were probably overlapping with one another and borrowed from one another. So you’re not talking about that many types of gospels.
A second factor to think about when it comes to apocryphal gospels is the date of these gospels. We don’t have any apocryphal gospel with any credible date to the first century. What that means is that the only gospels that date to the first century are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. And every other gospel that we have, whether it be Thomas or Peter or beyond, or even now recently the gospel of Judas, all are dated at least to the second century or later. And even secular scholars agree with this. There’s a few fringe scholars that want to put Thomas in the first century but virtually everyone agrees that the apocryphal gospels are late and they don’t belong to the first century and are often actually dependent upon the canonical four.
Now if that is true, what that tells you then is that the apocryphal gospels were late to the game. They came on the scene at a later point, they don’t really have any claim to apostolic authority, or have any real apostolic connections. And they are actually dependent upon the canonical four many times in certain ways. And so those gospels were written probably to promulgate some sort of theology that maybe was not in vogue at the time, or maybe belong to some sort of fringe group. But either way there’s no real reason to think these apocryphal gospels have any competition with the canonical four. And this is why the early church never took them seriously.
The important thing to realize is that there was never any major movement in the early church that centered around an apocryphal gospel. What I mean by that is, there’s never any indication that the church as a whole was about to adopt Thomas or was about to follow Peter’s gospel. There were certainly pockets here and there, but as a whole the apocryphal gospels are fairly marginalized. There were fringe groups from time to time that used them, there were heretical groups that used them, but the center of Christianity always seemed to be commited to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
BA: Well that’s very helpful. Now when we’re talking about gospels—we’re using the word “gospel” here and I wonder if it’s really right to describe the other “gospels” as gospels as an actual genre. Do they fall into the same category, or are they just named gospels?
MK: Well, actually both things are true. Some would look a lot like the canonical gospels, and therefore, in that sense the term gospel would probably be appropriate. You think about something like the gospel of Peter, which is an account of the crucifixion and resurrection that has certain surface similarities to the canonical gospels, and certainly an incomplete gospel, but genre-wise it would be similar.
One might think of P.Oxy. 840, which is another apocryphal gospel which has stories that are very similar to the synoptics and to John. And that’s actually probably what you would call a normal gospel. But then there’s other gospels that don’t look like the gospel genre at all. For example, the gospel of Thomas. The gospel of Thomas, even though it gets a lot of media time, most people don’t realize it’s actually not a gospel in any meaningful way. That means there’s no real story of Jesus’ birth, no story of his life, no story of his death, no story of his resurrection. All the gospel of Thomas is is a list of 114 sayings. 114 teaching of Jesus that are all just listed out in a row. This is just you know, a collection of Jesus’ teachings from some particular groups, but by no means could constitute a gospel, at least in the way that we typically think of the term.
Another example of this is some of the Nag Hammadi codices like the Gospel of Truth, which isn’t really a gospel at all but more of a theological treatise about the Gnosticism that was prevalent in those communities. And so the term “gospel” is pretty loose. You see, if you start narrowing it down to what genres really count as gospels, then the number even shrinks further. And I think maybe this was your point, that, yeah, maybe there’s two dozen that bear the name, but once you really start shrinking it down you’re talking about maybe a dozen books that really were circulating in the second, third and fourth centuries.
BA: Well, even the fact that they are second, third, fourth centuries… some of these people are not even around to write it. So what about the authorship? How can we determine the authorship of late non-canonical gospels?
MK: Yeah, well, when it comes to non-canonical gospels often the best we can do is determine who is not the author. In other words, as you already noted, if it was written in the second century then we know that any of the apostles couldn’t have written them because they were all dead by then. And so when you have a book assigned to Thomas in the second century you know that it is a pseudonymous title: a title that’s false, and designd to bolster the authority of the book.
The same with the Gospel of Peter. Peter was not alive in the second century when that Gospel was written. Same with the Gospel of Judas. He was not alive when that Gospel was written. And there’s even a gospels attributed to all kinds of different folks. The Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Mary, and on and on we could go. Those all are titles that were added after the fact designed to try to bring some credibility to those books and probably designed to some extent to mimic the canonical titles. To sould like the kind of titles that was already known in Gospels that were circulating. But given the fact that we have very little information about these books there’s really no way to know who the person was that wrote them during that time. We can come up with vague senses of dates and vague senses of provenance, but we really have very little information about who wrote these apocryphal books.
BA: Well, you know, many scholars you talk to will say, “Well, just go ahead and read, say, the Gospel of Thomas, and you’ll kind of realize what we’re all talking about here. These things are really not like the canonical books. So what would you say about that? If you simply read these other books would you have the strong impression of, yeah, obviously this doesn’t belong in the Bible?
MK: I think you would. I think there is a sense in which—and this goes back to a point I was making earlier about the kind of qualities in a book that are God-given and are trustworthy—when you read the canonical Gospels and then you read apocryphal gospels there is a decided difference between them in lots of ways. Certainly a qualitative difference, certainly a tone difference, certainly a style difference. And there is a difference that I think any person reading could pick up on.
One example of this is the canonical gospels are remarkably humble and tame in the way they describe miraculous events. What I mean by that is that they sort of tell it like it is in a fairly sober way without a lot of embellishment or what you might deem to be exaggeration or sort of polemical propaganda type style. Whereas when you read other types of apocryphal books that’s simply not the case. You see in those books all kinds of embellishments, all kinds of extras, all kinds of different things that would throw it over the top. A particular type of gospel that does this in the ancient world are what we call infancy gospels. Infancy gospels were purportedly stories of Jesus as a child. And these are notorious for legendary embellishment type features. One very famous one is called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is often confused with the Gospel of Thomas. But the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is actually a different gospel designed to tell you what Jesus must have been like as a boy. But when you read the gospel this doesn’t read at all like the canonical gospels. This is not sort of a sober-minded assessment of what happened in an historical account. Rather, it’s sort of a ridiculous over-the-top account where Jesus is this little firebrand of a child whom, if you upset, he might zap you dead and he ends up killing other children and raising them from the dead and he gets in trouble with the authorities for making clay pigeons on the Sabbath and he turns them into real pigeons and they fly away. There are all kinds of little, almost borderline humorous and strange and bizarre stories. And so yeah, the canonical gospels at the end of the day sound very reasonable and very, sort of sober-minded. And I think that I would always encourage people to go ahead and read these apocryphal gospels and if they do they would find out very quickly that they don’t sound at all like our canonical four.
BA: Well I was eating dinner with some friends the other night and something came up about particular books that were apocryphal books that are not in our Bible, and they said, “oh well, that’s heretical.” And so the question that came into discussion was: does not being part of the canon immediately make something heretical. I was hoping maybe you could unpack that a bit as far as the content that we find in these non-canonical books.
MK: Yeah. Very good question. One of the points I often make to my students is, don’t think that apocryphal means by definition heretical. And what I mean by that is to simply be outside the canon is not to be inherently wrong. It just simply means to be outside the canon means to be outside scripture. Those aren’t the same things. And so I think one of the unfortunate reactions people have when they hear something like an apocryphal text is to think that this is a book that should be burned or something like that. But not necessarily. What you have is some apocryphal texts are orthodox, or relatively orthodox within early Christianity.
A good example of this is a book called the Shepherd of Hermes, which is a very famous second-century writing about a particular vision that someone had about a sort of book-like revelation, if you will. And this particular book was widely received as orthodox and credible and helpful. Even a few people seemed to think it might be scripture but even with that it was widely rejected when it came to the canon. But nonetheless people still regard it as a helpful, useful book. And so, I always tell people, look, there’s two kinds of apocryphal books. There’s apocryphal books that are heretical but there’s also apocryphal books that might be useful and helpful. And so you don’t have to always throw them all out. The apocryphal book I did my doctoral work on P.Oxy. 840, which is a fragment of apocryphal
stories of Jesus, that also was a fairly orthodox document. There’s nothing in it that would be decidedly heretical. But it’s not in the New Testament. So yet again you’re faced with a story that’s probably theologically accurate but we just don’t simply know whether it happened and there’s certainly no reason to consider it scripture. So I think that distinction is helpful. I think it’s important to recognize that not all apocryphal stories of Jesus are necessarily fabricated. Some of them might be based on traditions that made their way into these apocryphal books.
BA: Very good. Well, would be the difference between the books we find in most Bibles and those we see in the Catholic Bible?
MK: Yeah, this is a common question that comes up as well. So I’ve been talking about apocryphal New Testament books, but there’s also the issue of what’s called the Apocrypha. Now the Apocrypha refers to normally the books added by the Roman Catholic church to the Old Testament. These are also what we know as intertestamental books. So there would be books like first and second Maccabees, and Judith and Tobit and so on. These type of books in the Apocrypha were written between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New, documenting various events during the intertestamental time period. And at the Council of Trent in the 16th century the Roman Catholic church officially declared those books to be scripture.
Now, as you can imagine, the story behind the Apocrypha is a long and complicated one that we certainly couldn’t go into here. The short version is that Protestants have not accepted the Apocrypha as scripture, and the reason they have not done that is because Protestants would argue, as I would, that the early church for the most part did not accept the Apocrypha as scripture. Certainly there were pockets that did, but as a whole the early church did not and it wasn’t until much later that those books began to sort of attain a status that would be equivalent with scripture and eventually it was declared to be such by Trent in the 16th century.
So Protestants would argue therefore that the Apocryphal books should not be considered scriptural. However, once again this brings up the distinction I mentioned a moment ago which is, just because they are not scriptural doesn’t mean they’re useless or necessarily heretical. Now there are some aspects to the Apocryphal books that we might have concerns about, but as a whole they’re fairly useful, and I think helpful, and I think historically reliable. But I don’t think they’re scripture and I think there’s good historical reasons for that conclusion.
BA: That’s helpful as well. Dr. Kruger, some people might come from a point of doubt and they might think, sort of this same thing that you alluded to at the very beginning of the interview: this whole idea of, “well gee, how do I know there aren’t some books that maybe have been left out and maybe they should be in my Bible today.” How do you respond to something like that—and maybe that’s a common question?
MK: Uh, yeah, that’s the most common question. Sort of the humorous answer I can give to that is to read my book. (Laughs)
BA: I hope they do!
MK: Yeah, exactly! I wrote my book Canon Revisited to answer that exact question. But if I were to give the short answer to it, I would say that our trust in the reliability of the canon is predicated on our trust in God. In other words, if God were to give his books to his people, do we think that God would have given the means by which his people would reliably recognize those books? I think it’s a very fair question to ask. So once again, the question is this: if God were to give books to his people, would he provide a means that would reliably allow his people to recognize those books? I think the Bible itself provides some of the answers to those questions. I think it shows that God indeed is not only the kind of God that does give revelation, does give books, but that he would also make sure that when he gave those books that they would be recognized by his church. And he wouldn’t leave that to chance. And so one of the indications I think of the fact that the church got it right, or another way to say it, is that we can get an indication of which books should be regarded as canonical is to simply ask the question: which books does the church achieve a consensus about? Which books has the church achieved a consensus about in terms of what books God has given? Well one must at least believe as a Christian if God gave books to his church and that he’s put the spirit in his church and put the spirit in his books, that the books that the church received might just be the books he intended. And I would argue in fact that that’s exactly what we see. We see a remarkable amount of unity around these 27 books. In fact, since the fourth century when sort of all the dust had settled on the original giving of the canon, there really hasn’t been much to talk about. Basically, Christians across the world all agree these are the 27 books. You have a couple minor exceptions here and there, but the consensus is wide and the consensus is deep. And so my answer to someone just on the surface would be, look, if you believe that God can give books and can make sure the church receives them, then the books that the church has received, you have good reason to think it might just be the books that God intended. I think that’s at least a good place to start.
BA: So in a sense that’s sort of an argument for the faithful transmission and preservation of scripture?
MK: It’s an argument from God’s providence—I think of course it’s an argument from God’s providence. But it’s also an argument on the basis of God’s intent. In other words, if God intended to give his word to his people we would want to believe that he also gave a mechanism by which the church would recognize—reliably recognize—the word that he gave. So, that doesn’t mean that the church is infallible, or the church had some secret revelation. It just simply means that God providentially and also circumstantially created an environment with which the church could recognize his word as coming from him. And in my book I go deeper into this concept, in terms of what that environment looks like and how God does this. But I think you of course presume the providence of God and his sovereignty in why he would do what he does.
Another way to say it is, is that our understanding about the reliability of the canon is predicated on our understanding about the reliability of God’s character and what he’s like and how he acts. And so I think those are natural deductions from scripture itself. So I think there is a certainly a sense in which providence is in play there, but I think it’s maybe a slightly different argument than the inerrancy argument in terms of the preservation of the scriptures. I think those are a little bit different, and of course it’s hard at this point to explain all the nuances of why. But at the end of the day, certainly trusting in God’s character and trusting in his providence play a role in our assurance that we have the right books.
BA: Well thanks for that. Now, many of our listeners are going to be those who are studying or very interested in the area of Christian apologetics, and so they’d be real keen on defending the reliability of the gospels, understanding and defending the canon of scripture that we have today. But I wonder if you have any advice for apologists who are trying to do this and defend scripture. I know that there are certain pitfalls that people can fall into unknowingly and so I want to ask what approach you take to defending the scriptures and if maybe there are any approaches to defending the scriptures that you would want to steer away from?
MK: Yes, this is a great question—and a big one. Yeah, several thoughts come to mind. One is, if you are going to defend the canon or text of the New Testament, you’re definitely going to have to be willing and ready to do some background reading. It’s not an easy area; it’s a complicated area. It’s an area rife with all kinds of misunderstandings and misconceptions. And so you’re going to want to make sure that you’re not promulgating some of those. Sometimes I hear evangelicals promulgating misconceptions and misunderstandings about the canon, and certainly anybody who defends it would not want to be in that camp. So that’d be one thing that I would say in terms of how to give people encouragement as they defend the faith.
There’s probably other pieces of advice I would give as well. One second piece of advice would have to do with the way evidences play a role in our defense. I’m a big fan of evidence, I’m a big fan of facts and giving people good historical answers. But at the same time I think it’s naive to think that apologetics is sufficiently done by simply handing people evidence. People do not come to the evidence neutrally; they do not come to it with no worldview at all. They come to it with a worldview that’s already predisposed against scripture and against God. And so to give them evidence and only evidence is, I think, a step in the right direction, but not a sufficient step. Apologetics has to be done on a more macro level than that, so it can’t just be backing up the dump truck and unloading the patristic data on someone. It’s got to be framed in light of the whole Christian worldview. The other way to say that is that when we’re defending the faith we need to do it at a worldview level, realizing that there’s reasons to accept and reject evidence that has nothing to do with the evidence. It actually has to do with other things they already believe before they look at the evidence. That particular reality is key to doing apologetics. And certainly I would encourage people to pay attention to that as they defend the faith. And so those would be two I think practical pieces of advice folks who are heading out there to try to bolster confidence in the Bible.
BA: Very good, and very helpful. Well, Dr. Kruger, we’ve covered quite a bit of ground here and it’s been really great. I know you’ve written a lot of good content on your own blog. You’ve also got a number of lectures available online. So I was hoping maybe you could just direct our listeners now to where they can find your blog, your resources, and your writing.
MK: Yeah, the best way to do that is to start with my blog because my blog has links to all my writings, many of which are available on the website. And then for the books, there’s links to how those can be purchased. But my blog is called Canon Fodder, but the actual webpage is www.michaeljkruger.com. And so if they google that in I’m sure my webpage will come up and they can find out more information about how they can learn about my articles and my books.
BA: Well excellent. We’ll link to all of those things at the blog post at Apologetics315, but Dr. Kruger it’s been a great interview and I appreciate you taking the time to do it.
MK: Thanks, Brian. I enjoyed our conversation.